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David Rumer

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Member Since: Jul, 2003

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Canned Cream
By David Rumer
Thursday, July 31, 2003



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An incident from the Great Depression

     The boy was six, the year was 1931 and the day was a hot Sunday in August, when the knock came at the back screened door, a timid knock, an apologetic knock.  The mother, observing the strange man through the screen, appraised him quickly.  The sorely neglected blue serge suit that had seen better days, a dark blue necktie sticking out of the coat pocket, the soiled white shirt open at the neck, and dusty scuffed shoes. Clean face and hands, and a Panama straw pushed back on his head, exposing a shock of red hair. Round steel rimmed glasses completed the picture 
Eyeing him up an down, she wondered, "What barn did that bird sleep in last night?". And immediately called the boy's father.
     As the boy stood slack jawed and curious, the man hesitatingly spoke of a job in Akron. "I'm not a beggar or hobo or anything like that, been a bookkeeper over ten years, and a good one," he insisted, "my boss went broke in the crash  .  .  .  just need to get to the job so I can bring my family .  .  .  haven't eaten in a while," a not unusual story that year.

     "We came from Akron," the boy offered.  .  .  .A gemtle hand gesture, by the father, quieted the boy and ushered him out of the adult world. He loved and admired the father, so big and strong and wise.

     The Father, prided himself on being a good judge of people, and after a thorough scrutiny and a bit of contemplation said, "You've got a long ways to go, Mister."
Then, turning from the door asked, "Can't we do something for this man Dolly?"
     With this sanction from the head of the house, the mother quietly agreed and began to do what mothers do so well.

     The boy knew it was a long way to Akron.  They came to Sidell from there, in the Essex, after his baby sister was born. He liked the Essex. It was a big beautiful black car that went about smoothly and quietly.  His father had bragged, "She'll do 45 all day long, right down the road." Too bad the quick freeze, the past winter, had broken the engine. After that, the father brought the older car home for the family to use.  .  ."for the time being." The boy thought about the trip now and then, remembering the overnight stay in the tiny tourist cabin on the way, when he slept on the canvas army cot and envied his little sister for her place in their parent's bed. How, the next morning, they ate the warm oatmeal and cold cinnamon toast prepared for their breakfast, by the lady who rented them the cabin. And how the mother washed his hands and face in the cold water at the well and dressed him and his sister in clean clothes.

     If they were in an accident on the road, she didn't want anyone to think her children "are on their way to the orphan's home." The father had cautioned her about the very high cost of travel, so she did not mention the 75cents it cost for the family breakfast. Back in the car, however, she could contain it no longer and sniffed, "pretty poor pickings, if you ask me."
     A job had also beckoned them. The father came to operate a secondary creamery station in the farm town of Sidell, in the middle plains of Illinois. Buying cream from farmers, in those days, had two drawbacks; the small commissions, and ironically, a little coffee cream couldn't be skimmed for the family as only sour cream produced butter. A small monthly compensation check, proudly received from the government for an injury the father sustained during Naval service, supplemented the commissions. Coffee cream was another matter.


     The boy could remember a huge "colored" man, in Ohio, who brought ice for their ice box. He ran up the stairs to their second floor flat with huge chunks of ice that would have broken a lesser man. He popped the frozen blocks in the ice box, collected the dime, and ran down stairs. Having no notion of how many dimes the man must collect, that he and his could eat, it seemed to the boy that colored men must always be a hurry. In the street, he would take that scary ice pick and deftly chip small pieces of ice, to the delight of the boy and other kids around the wagon, who scurried for them. The boy thought ice was dandy because if it fell to the ground and got a littlel dirty, it washed itself off as it mellted. Such is the logic of small boys.   


     The ice box was still with them, but unfortunately, Sidell had no ice plant, and without ice, "store bought" milk and coffee cream did not keep well. Ever adaptable, the mother substituted the modern product, evaporated milk, which most people in rural America put in their coffee, and in those days, called 'canned cream'.


     The boy did not drink coffee, but he had tasted canned cream. He did not like the concentrated taste left in his mouth nor the stickiness on his tongue, and did not understand adults' taste for it. There was much about adults the boy didn't understand.


     The Sunday ritual pancake-breakfast, the father preferred, had just finished when the man appeared. So it was a fat stack of pancakes that mothermagic wrought, as Dolly added "a little something" to the leftover batter, and perched two large sunnyside eggs on top for good measure. With the slightly watered and re-heated pot of coffee from breakfast, and ample maple syrup and butter, she conjured up a "repast fit for a king." One last item completed the tray she prepared for the wayfarer; a small pitcher of canned cream for his coffee.
     She presented the tray to the grateful, patient man at the door with instructions to, "Go out there and set on that car and eat this, it will give your body strength."


     The boy could not judge that mothers' grammar is not always letter perfect, but he was sure they always knew what a person should eat, and even knew what it would do for the person's body.

     The man obediently sat on the running board of the family Model T and, bowing his head, offered aloud, a short prayer of thanks. Only then could he begin sampling his great good fortune. Seemingly unaware of the boy standing there gaping, the famished man ate heartily and with relish, drinking his coffee black.


     The boy was astonished as he watched him lick the last of the maple syrup from the plate and finish the meal.


     He arose, stood tall for a moment, and then returned the tray and utensils to the back door. With profuse thanks, he addressed the mother. "You are kind folks, God loves you Ma'am." Hearing the man, the father returned to the door.
     After traveling to the West Coast, in the service of his country, to board the great battleship Arizona, sailing completely around the world to the East Coast, and making the homebound trip on the Limited, the father felt fully qualified to advise a traveller. "I think your best bet, Mister, is to go down here to Federal 36 and take that to Indianapolis. It's a good two lane hardroad, and cars will be going by every now and then, so your chances for rides should be pretty good. You might want to shy around Indianapolis.  .  . go up by Noblesville and around. They're picking people up for vagrancy now in Indianapolis."
     The man thanked him for the advice and warning, then with new resolve, picked up his worn valise, and headed down the road. His step was sure and his gait smart, his world no longer bleak. For now, there was new strength in his body, good advice in his head.  .  .  .and new hope in his heart.


     After a while, with the excitement ended, the boy wandered back into athe kitchen looking very thoughtful. Seeing his mother, he remarked earnestly, "Gee Mom, that man must'a been awful hungry, he drank up every bit of that canned cream."


 


 


    


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Reviewed by Jack Lowe 10/2/2007
Mr. Rumer, I enjoyed "Canned Cream". My parents grew up in Chicago during the Depression. Your story reminded me of many anecdotes they told me of that time. My mother's family, like the family you wrote of, used Carnation evaporated milk in place of cream. People knocking on the door and asking for food was, they told me, also a common occurance.

Your sharp, insightful writing brought that era to life for me. Well done.
Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 8/1/2003
I can remember my daddy talking about the depression, and my grandmother, also. What an awful time that must have been! Excellent write; enjoyed! (((HUGS))) and love, your friend in Texas, Karen Lynn. :(

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